Issa Manalo Lopez, a theater artist, uses her art to share her experience of martial law in the Philippines. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
She was born in the middle of the night while her mother, a political activist, was about to break free from prison. As a result, the escape did not happen.It was the year of living dangerously in the Philippines.After her birth, Issa Manalo Lopez was sent to her grandparents’ house because the young girl was getting sick behind the prison walls.The prison camp continued to be part of Issa's formative years even after her mother’s release, as her father — another political activist — remained inside."I was just 3 years old. I remember my mother and I would visit him. He was tortured. To see him alive was one of those precious moments," she said.
Her mother worked with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the umbrella organization of communist led clandestine organizations. Her father also worked as an organizer for the communist rebel group.
Issa admitted she grew up living in fear. She was grateful, however, that she did not become one of those whose parents died, those whose families were killed in front of them.She was in her first year in college when her parents finally came home. "Since then, we are still making up for lost time," she says.She does not blame her parents for not being there with her all the time. "It was the violent oppressors who forced my parents to choose the path that they took. Serving the people with your life and time was never a wrong decision," she said.'History repeats itself'On Sept. 21, 1972, then president Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under martial law. Some 47 years later, the scars of those dark years remain fresh.Amnesty International says over 100,000 people became victims of martial law. At least 70,000 people were arrested, 34,000 were tortured and 3,240 were killed.
Issa spoke at a forum to mark the anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of martial law. She shared her family’s story and the impact armed conflict had on her childhood.
With her were three young girls who were born in the 1990s but have the same trauma Issa encountered in the 1980s.Sky (not her real name), saw her brother killed during a joint police and military operation on Dec. 27, 2018, in Negros province. "They put my brother in a sack then dragged him like a pig," she said.Another girl, Therese (not her real name), a tribal student from Magpet in North Cotabato in Mindanao, said her family has been accused of being rebel supporters. "My mother is in the police’s crosshairs. We left our village because of threats," she said.Life has been hard for Therese and other tribal people in Mindanao since martial law was declared there in 2017.Rights group Karapatan has reported at least 28,813 cases of threats, harassment and intimidation since it began.Nearly 100 people have been reported killed and more than 130 cases of attempted extrajudicial killings were recorded. There were also six cases of enforced disappearance, 35 victims of torture, and 1,450 cases of illegal arrests.Retelling the pastWhen 13-year old Mariz (not her real name) spoke at the forum, Issa wept.Mariz told of how her father was killed on Feb. 7. Weeks later, her uncle was also gunned down by unidentified assailants. Both were suspected drug users.Government data show that at least 5,536 people were killed during "legitimate police operations" against illegal narcotics from July 2016 to June 2019.Human rights groups, however, claim that at least 30,000 people have died in the government’s "war on drugs.""I can see myself in those young girls. They are living in constant fear because of unending threats, but they chose to stand and speak," said Issa.Issa has been sharing her family’s experiences of martial law, not only during media interviews, forums and gatherings but especially in her work.As an artist, she uses her work, mostly theater productions, as a "mirror" of the situation of victims of social injustices and violence.Issa, however, said her plays hardly reach the bigger audience "whom we must inform about social injustices."She said Filipinos still have to understand the impact of conflict and violence on the lives of the most vulnerable in society."Sometimes we do not care and we do not oppose because things are too far from our own reality," she said. “We need to constantly retell the stories of people who suffered."